Of the many, many excellent jokes singer Eddie Argos makes on the crackerjack debut by his London-based band Art Brut, the best might be the band’s name itself. “Art brut” is a term coined by the French Pop artist Jean Dubuffet, who used it to describe works made by individuals existing outside the ritualized world of professional art. We call the stuff outsider art, and in its musical form it’s received attention lately through material like the Langley Schools Music Project, in which a group of 1970s elementary-school kids, under the direction of their mad-genius music teacher, recorded elaborately arranged choral versions of such tunes as Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” and the Eagles’ “Desperado.”
The joke of Art Brut’s name is that Argos and his mates don’t make outsider art — they make insider art, devilishly funny rock music about rock music. On Bang Bang Rock & Roll (Fierce Panda), Art Brut (who will stop in at the Middle East on April 3) parody the ritualized world of professional music even as they enjoy the payoffs that world has to offer. In this way — and in the way Argos speaks as much as he sings — Art Brut could be considered an English equivalent of the Hold Steady, the Brooklyn indie group whose frontman, Craig Finn, seems determined to become the underground’s self-aware Bruce Springsteen.
Bang Bang opens with “Formed a Band,” which on first hearing seems to mock the chest-beating self-promotion of young rock acts. “Formed a band, we formed a band,” Argos shouts over a choppy guitar riff. “Look at us! We formed a band!” As the song progresses, the claims to greatness keep piling up, from “We’re gonna write a song as universal as ‘Happy Birthday’ ” to “We’re gonna be the band that writes the song that makes Israel and Palestine get along.” Yet for all the joy Argos takes in skewering the kind of self-aggrandizement encouraged by the British music press (which anoints new rock saviors every other week), he’s also seduced by the romance of it. In “My Little Brother,” he describes his sibling’s discovery of rock and roll in language that revisits his own awakening: “He made me a tape of bootlegs and B-sides, and every song — every single song on that tape — said exactly the same thing: ‘Why don’t our parents worry about us?’ ”
In “Emily Kane,” Argos describes in excruciating detail the flame he tends for an old girlfriend. “If memory serves, we’re still on a break,” he admits without a shred of embarrassment. Yet the music is overwhelmingly jubilant, with another one of guitarist Ian Catskilkin’s jagged riffs laid atop a beat that drummer Mikey B can’t seem to play fast enough. Near the end, Argos transcends self-obsession and gives himself over to the music’s emotion. “I hope this song finds you fame,” he sings as a choir of gutter punks pipes up behind him. “I want school kids on buses singing your name!” “Emily Kane” is the definition of meta-rock: Argos solves the problem he’s describing in the song by performing the song.
He’s not alone in his self-awareness. Bang Bang Rock & Roll — which despite critical buzz and healthy import sales has yet to receive an American release — is one of a recent spate of insider-art rock records to surface from the British indie scene. Another that’s almost as good is The New Fellas (Wichita), the second album from the Cribs, three brothers from Wakefield with a big chip on their collective shoulder about the careerism they think is devouring the English rock scene. The Cribs play jangly guitar pop that recalls Pavement in its sloppy charm. In “I’m Alright Me,” a pumping disco beat moves the song forward but the proceedings still threaten to fall apart. “Martell” imagines what a glam-rock band composed of kids who’ve just learned to play their instruments might sound like.
On the album cover the trio strike the familiar poses of rockers in their element: a bottle to the lips, hair obscuring the eyes, a blank stare from behind a microphone. Yet the songs reveal a kind of disgust with those poses. The opening “Hey Scenesters!” is a brutal takedown of rockist poseurs. “Everybody loves you now,” singer/guitarist Ryan Jarman seethes over a cantankerous dance-rock groove, “just don’t go and let us down.” In “Martell,” Jarman questions the success the Cribs have had among those scenesters, asking, “How hard can it be to get a slap on the back from a roomful of morons?”
“We just write about what’s going on,” Ryan’s bassist brother Gary says over the phone from Wakefield, audibly exhausted after a lengthy return trip from Australia and Japan. “Our first record was about the usual kind of stuff, but we made our second after we’d been on tour and seen this totally different side of life we’d never seen before. And a lot of it rubbed us the wrong way — I was really surprised at how fake people are.”